Journalism 101: What NOT to Do



Editors actually do read their email.

All of them.

Every single one.

Maybe not on the very day it comes into their mailbox. But they do read it.

I think one of the biggest strengths I can bring to you, my dear readers, is that I play both sides of the fence. I write. And I edit. I send out pitches. I accept pitches.

I’m a switch hitter. A bi-writer.

So I know what editors want.

And I know how they treat the communications we send them.

It starts with a subject heading.

If your subject heading seems spammy, janky or whack, your email may be immediately deleted.

When I’m pitching an editor I don’t know well but we have some connection, I put that in my heading.

“Referred to you by Akiba Solomon.”

Editors will open that up. Then I have to convince them to keep reading and give me what I’m asking. Akiba’s name will just make them open it up. Not necessarily respond. Or accept my request. It takes way more heavy lifting than that.

Same goes for me. If I see a subject line that says, “Referred to you by Joyce Davis,” I will open right away. I trust Joyce, so if she tells someone to reach out to me, I know this person has been vetted already.

So if you and I meet in cyberspace and you seem normal and hardworking, I may tell you to reach out to so-and-so and tell them I sent you.

(Speaking of which, um, Cheo? That kid I referred to you? Email ’em back why doncha?  It’s been like, a month. We know you’re busy and all. But he’s a good kid. I promise.)

Anyway, if it’s an interview request you’re after, say it plainly in your subject line: “Interview Request for XYZ Magazine.”

Sometimes, I get subject headings that say, “Can I have two seconds of your time?” or “Hey Aliya, What’s going on?”

Those emails get opened two weeks later while I’m standing on line at the grocery store catching up on emails.

Real talk.

The emails that say, “Does this pitch make sense?” or “Is XYZ the right editor for this piece” will get my attention faster.

[Sidebar: I also respond to red flag subject lines. But ONLY from my dear readers. Sometimes you guys hit me up and say ALIYA HELP PLEASE! and I try to answer right away. But that only works for names I recognize from the blog. Being a dear reader gets you instant responses. (Most of the time.) Just recently a dear reader hit me with a red flag subject line because she had a *really* good story idea and there was a time factor involved. So I hit her back right away with my thoughts. Again, save the red flag subject lines for true emergencies. And if you’ve never communicated before with the person, probably best that you don’t red flag at all]

Oh, and then there’s always my go-to phrase: “Quick question”

I don’t know about other writers/editors. But I always open up an email labeled Quick Question. (Even quicker if the name is familiar.)

If it’s a true quick question. (Quick enough for me to answer on my new iphone without too many grammatical errors, I’ll do it right away. Most of the time).

But don’t fake the editor out with a Quick Question subject line and then a whole long post. Not cool.

Okay. I just gave you a whole bunch of what-to-do.

Here’s what NOT to do:

Send a crappy email.

It seems so elementary, doesn’t it?

So why am I (and other editors) getting poorly worded, gramatically incorrect emails from folks who should know better?

What is going on?

First of all, I blame the Blackberry/Iphone/Sidekick phenomena.


There, I said it.

Maybe other editors/writers don’t care. But to me, it’s a sign of unprofessionalism.

It makes me envision you brushing your teeth and feeding your dog while dashing off a submission to me.

No. I want your behind seated in a quiet space. At a proper computer, thinking about what you’re writing and editing that joint. And spell checking.

Hell, let a friend read it before you send it out.

And when I see sent from my i-phone, blackberry, sidekick, carrier pigeon at the end of an email, it turns me off.

I don’t mean after we’ve already connected.

I mean that first introductory email.

Maybe I’m old school and old fashioned. But I think other editors feel the same.

So last week, I get an email from E. Monique Johnson, editor of Upscale. Here’s what it said:

This really disturbed me so I’m sharing it with those of you who I know work with or come into regular contact with students and other young people. This is an actual e-mail I received from the publicity office of a rather well known black celebrity this afternoon. Assuming that the message was sent on a mobile device (excusing the all-lowercase lettering). I was still stuck on the grammar and lack of sentence structure.

I removed the identifying info and anything I replaced is in red, but everything else is as it appears. It may be a good teaching tool for up and comers on why talking a good game is not more important than mastering the basics—like putting together a complete sentence.

Here’s the email. Brace yourself:

hello mrs. johnson

im reaching out too you via email and hopefully face too face ,as you may know CELEBRITY CLIENT is a clinet of mines and a advid reader of you all magazine with THEM filming THEIR new realtiy show with TV NETWORK we would love;love too have on a cover of Upscale Magzaine with a very indepth interview with all a first look as too whats too come with CELEBRITY CLIENT.

thanks again mrs. johnson

fyi-your receptionist is the best.

Do I even need to say anything else?

I’d like to think my dear readers are beyond this. Y’all know better, right? No one who reads my blog would ever send out an email like this to the editor of a national magazine. Right? RIGHT!?

I’m speechles. So I asked Ms. Johnson to handle this. Her thoughts:

In this “instant” culture (IM, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) the importance of professionalism and decorum is too often lost in the mix. It is obvious that this professional representative felt comfortable using casual address, however it was not/is not appropriate in reaching out to any professional medium, whether you are a student or public relations representative. I imagine their client would be horrified if they knew and that the PR rep would be out of a job. It didn’t make me want to not cover the person, but it did make me want to pull the rep to the side and say something (which I did not). I was concerned about them representing themselves to other publications that way because it has the potential to become their standard. And that is not ok.

We all have to master the domain in which we have chosen, but we have to be savvy enough to know who we are dealing with and the best way to reach them. I have to do this daily when dealing with various celebrity representatives. My tone may be more business casual when dealing with music industry reps, who are generally more laid back and relaxed. This may also be a result (and thereby a benefit) of having been schooled in Atlanta during the era of LaFace, Rowdy, Dungeon Fam and having gone to school with or knowing most of these folks personally or within one degree of separation. My mannerisms with West Coasters however is more measured and particular to the talent I’m dealing with. Hollywood reps tend to be more hurried and have more layers to peel through to get to the source.

This is Business 101 and the cardinal rule: You only get one chance to make a first impression and this one was less than impressive.

Dear readers:

How does someone who represents a well known celebrity send out an email like this. How?

Do you send out introductory emails from cell phones? Do you have that annoying sent from my… message on your cell phone? Do you triple check your pitches and all correspondence before you send it out?

I’d love to hear from you.

24 Responses to “Journalism 101: What NOT to Do”

  1. Katura Says:

    I can’t.

    “Mines” without “California Gold” preceeding it, is like fingers across a chalkboard. Or worse, hair in my ice cream (which happened recently). It’s up there with the use of fake word “conversate.”

    I proofread my Facebook comments and have been known to delete and repost if I find a typo. (Robyn Curry, I know you’re with me). I’m neurotic like that. Don’t expect others to be. But a publicist? I thought p.r. people were supposed to be familiar with AP guidelines like journalists are? Is entertainment p.r. different?

  2. Kenesha Says:

    I’m wondering if the celebrity’s PR person is a family member or close friend. Too many stars don’t hire proper personnel and try to put on family, which is cool only if they know what they’re doing. I can’t imagine anyone who was interviewed and referenced for a PR job sending out an email like this.

  3. Daree Allen Says:

    I’m not ready to do any pitches, but I work from home as it is, so I always have to self-edit and triple-check my work. Whoever sent that message to Ms. Johnson embarrassed him/herself and whomever they represent.

    I agree that you should err on the side of formality whenever you talk to someone for the first time– I think it goes without saying, but you have proven that unfortunately, it DOES have to be said. How you communicate with a person depends on who you’re talking to and whether you have a rapport with them. I re-read all my emails on blogs and emails, not only to catch errors, but to make sure that it reads well. Emails can get forwarded and blogs are public, so you want to get it right the first time.

    Also, I want the receiver to get the message I intended, and make sure my message doesn’t sound offensive, rude, short, or put them off. It’s so easy to misinterpret an email’s tone. And I don’t have a fancy-schmancy phone that leaves the Blackberry/iphone/whatever brand messages to people.

  4. Sunny Dee Says:

    Thank you so much for always being willing to impart the best knowledge and wisdom!

  5. Mignon Says:

    Seriously, that e-mail is absolutely ridiculous. If they were my PR rep, they would definitely be fired!! Furthermore, I would want someone to tell me if they got this kind of foolishness to their desk with my name attached.

    I sit and edit emails of this nature for DAYS and I have multiple people read them. In fact, my friends are pretty tired of reading through my stuff. But hey, I’d do it for them! I’d definitely never send a business email from my phone. There is too much room for error. When sending email, I always try and put my best foot forward for the very reasons Ms. Johnson noted in her response. Simply because they don’t know me and I want my first impression to be a good one. Since I’m new to the game, it’s important to me that anything attached to my name is the very best. Whether it be a pitch, an article or even an introductory email. It’s amazing to me that someone would think that an email like that would be okay.

    Has me thinking though, does anyone know how to remove that setting from the phone? Even when I’m doing quick responses to folks, I hate that they know I’m using my phone to respond.

  6. Daree Allen Says:

    I’m with Katura on the editing FB msgs and hating the fake word conversate.

  7. Aliya S. King Says:

    @mignon: yes, you can remove the message from your phone. that make it hard because they want you to be a constant advertisement. but it can be done.

  8. Patrice Says:

    Thanks for this insightful post on tips to get an editor to (at least!) open an email. Sometimes I feel like they just go into a black hole…

  9. Tiesha H. Says:

    I know Monique!! Lol. (Just felt like randomly saying that first.) Back to the topic at hand, lately I have been reading a lot of poorly worded, grammatically incorrect emails from “PR people.” As a matter of fact, Jack and Jill Politics recently posted one they received from the NAACP on their blog.

    I don’t send emails from my BlackBerry unless they’re to friends. I am TOO afraid of misspelling or misstating something. I only respond to emails from people I know pretty well from it.

    I agree with the above comment about making sure facebook comments don’t have typos. I even find myself correcting texts and BlackBerry Messenger messages. I like words too much to misuse them. Lol. Plus, that’s just mortifying if you’re a writer. Or a “professional” in any field for that matter.

    Not to automatically go to race, but I wonder if that representative took an informal (and misguided) way of introducing his/her client b/c Upscale is an AA publication? Maybe he/she felt that he/she could be “familiar” with Monique and did not take time to spell check or anything? Just a thought…

  10. Alisha Says:

    First, let me say that my biggest pet peeve (and I’m seeing it more now than ever thanks to Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is using “to”, instead of “too” and vice versa!! It enrages me!

    I have never sent an introductory email via my BB. I don’t have the patience to write anything longer than 2-3 sentences on my phone, so I commend you, Aliya and other bloggers, for blogging via your phones. I have actually corresponded with you via phone AFTER I sent a PC email because I wanted to respond quickly.

    That celebrity rep email: out of order and out of control!

  11. boldnessisgenius Says:

    I’m guilty of sending feature length emails via Blackberry. But then, I also use semi-colons in text messages. And I reserve exclamation points for cases in which they are absolutely necessary. Speaking of the exclamation point, One of my major pet peeves is the double exclamation point. The words should have force enough, with the exclamation point serving only– but perfectly– as a flourish. But I digress!! See how awkward that was?

    I never understand why people– especially those who are linguistically inclined or those whose way with words keep them gainfully employed– allow the ease of a particular medium to dictate the quality of their messages. The point of such things as SMS and email is to speed up the delivery of whatever it is you have to say– not dilute it.

    Love this post.

  12. boldnessisgenius Says:

    Evidently, I belong in an analog world; hadn’t realized I was logged into my seldom used “boldnessisgenius” account. This is Sadia.

  13. Eunice Says:

    No matter what hat I’m wearing (writer, designer, communications specialist, etc.), my first communication is with my b-u-t-t in a chair at my desktop. I just don’t feel comfortable doing it any other way. I may start a pitch in MS Word on Monday and let it sit for at least a week before reading through it several times, editing it and copy/pasting it in an email. Even then, I’m still editing before I hit the ‘Send’ button. I pitched a local women’s magazine several times before they called to accept. I’m on my second assignment with them. They emailed me to ask for ideas, then emailed me to give me an assignment. At that point, I felt I could respond to her on my Blackberry. Mostly because her emails always seem urgent and I always seem to be on the bus when they hit my inbox.

    That email Ms. Johnson received was horrible. I don’t think that PR Rep. was properly vetted and PR, Journalism or English was not their major or first choice in college. They more than likely fell into that position through a connection.

    I know a couple of young people who need to read this post. And one of them is a published author. I’m still trying to figure out how she got published. SMH

  14. E. Monique Johnson Says:

    Wow Aliya, so many people read your blog! My BB is blowing up, and Hi Tiesha! Back to business: First, let me say that I’d thought of Tiesha’s comment that they felt comfortable in being so casual because we’re an AA publication. While that may be true, it is still not acceptable. And I deal with black, white and other PR reps all day everyday and that is not a common mistake, or assumption made by anyone else. This person was just wrong. Using Aliya’s post as an example, she does not pick up the phone and call me Ms. Johnson. It’s also not something that I require. However, the rules of professionalism dictate that if you don’t know me (or any editor for that matter), it’s an appropriate way to address me/them. Most people, like me, will make their preference known, but that’s for the person you’re addressing to decide. Always err on the side of professionalism.

    BTW – I send messages via BB all of the time, I just try to be diligent and double check the messages before I press send.

  15. JennyWHOA Says:

    Wow. I’m with Katura; I will delete and repost a Tweet in order to correct my grammar. I will even correct the grammar of a RT (retweet). I’m just that anal.

    If I spot a grammatical error in an article of a “respectable” publication, I will immediately stop reading and move on with my time.

    Like the popular saying goes, I just can’t!

    The sad, sad thing about this email is that I bet if you showed it to the celebrity client, they wouldn’t even be able to identify the numerous grammatical errors. How sad is that?!

    We’re in an era of the functioning illiterate celebrity. I can’t tell you how many celebrity tweets make me cringe on a daily basis. I have no respect for them. None whatsoever.

    It is really sad that we’re such a hyper-materialistic society that mastering the basics has become an antiquated notion.

  16. Miss Dimples Says:

    I am an editing queen…and I’m not an editor. It’s just a peeve of mine, and I correct myself all the time. BlackBerrys and iPhones can be great to send e-mail (isn’t that why most people have them?), however, I agree that they shouldn’t be used for initial communication. Save it for when you have an established relationship, and check, re-check, re-check, and re-check AGAIN before you hit ‘Send.’ That rule applies to all communication you send representing you, your brand, etc.

  17. TAE Says:

    THANK YOU, this post is exactley what I needed in my life. I’m a student of journalism, a year out of college, and I’ve personally experienced how tough of a buisness it can be. To have someone with your experience giving out advice like that is priceless, also it’s cool to see another black woman holding down a career you aspire to….this is my first time commenting but I’ve been on the site a couple of times, I will definitely be back. I never send out an introductory e-mail from my cell, and always make sure that grammar is on point before I send, I have slipped up once or twice though

  18. MissMikelah Says:

    That e-mail was horrible! I’ve made mistakes when sending e-mail, but never that bad. But to the PR person’s defense, there are times when you have an idea and want to send immediately, and of course the best ideas come to you randomly with a blackberry on hand. I avoid those mistakes by using the note option to get my idea down and e-mailing it to myself. The e-mail serves as a reminder and it gives me a chance to re-think my thoughts and formulate my ideas correctly.

  19. Retha Says:

    First…”proper computer” love that! I hear my former boss’ voice in my head, he’s from the UK and said proper all the time. I always respond from my BB, I turn on spellcheck and also re-check before I send. That doesn’t mean every email is perfect. But, if its an important initial communication, I wait until I’m at a……proper computer…..did I mention I love that!? I’m no writer, but grammatical errors make me cringe too…unfortunately I see it way too often, personal emails and in business. It makes you wonder what they are teaching now and how they are teaching it. A young family member is trying to start a business and he pitched me via text message!! Text message!! Sorry Sadia, that required two exclamation points :) I took it as a sign of the times, but something has to change. Your writing is a reflection of you, it has to be taken seriously. Good post. Oh! Subject line tips were on point!

  20. Newmie Newm Says:

    There’s an easy way to avoid sending from “new” technology: always be a year (at least) or so behind the times, thus forcing you to write and send pitches from an actual computer at your home because your phone only makes and receives phone calls and takes the occasional darkened, blurry photo.

    J. New

    Sent From My Home Computer

  21. Tiesha Says:

    Hey Monique!! For the record, I didn’t think it was appropriate or correct for them to approach you that way (especially the poor grammar), but I was searching for excuses for this doozy of an email. Lol. I have nothing. Also, LOL @ “Sent From My Home Computer.”

  22. la negrita Says:

    Once upon a time, I may have been anal about typos and grammatical errors in informal situations. But nowadays, as long as they aren’t completely ignorant, I peep them and move on. Do I understand what’s being said? Yes? Cool. We good.

    I also don’t care for the “Sent from…” line in mobile devices. But I’m a hypocrite because that function is totally turned on when I use my iPod Touch. I keep it for those times I’m really rushed and my fingers move too fast for me to stop the T9 from predicting something incorrect. It’s like I little disclaimer: “Sent from iPod, so don’t expect perfection!” But I suppose it’s useless because I usually end up telling people that I’m on a mobile device anyway.

    I think I will remove it tonight. :-p

    I’d never send a pitch from a mobile device. The thought of it makes me anxious. But I HAVE sent pitches with typos. :-o Lucky for me, they’ve been overlooked. I usually sit on something for a day, but I can’t allow myself to obsess over it. If anything, I’ll have another pair of eyes look at it before I hit “send.” When you’re the person who wrote the piece, you know how it should be worded and are more likely to miss a typo because your mind know what’s “supposed” to be there.

  23. Robyn Says:

    Yes Katura, you are right. We are frequent editors of our FB postings, even the private ones in an inbox message. I am hoping FB develops the red pen feature soon. Each one teach one, and so on.

    Aliya, you asked, “No one who reads my blog would ever send out an email like this to the editor of a national magazine. Right? RIGHT!?” That is correct. Letter/email writing is a lost art form. The process deserves respect, the content deserves respect and, most importantly, the intended audience deserves upmost respect for taking the time out to read our mumbo jumbo. Younger folks probably won’t see it as such but bad grammar, punctuation and spelling are blatant signs of disrespect in my book. I work in an academic department. The papers submitted for review bring onion tears to my eyes. My response to these writers? Don’t disrespect the art. Grab the proper tools, learn the rules, and apply them where necessary. Aliya, you’re right. A second set of eyes, good eyes, is always helpful when trying to put something out.

  24. Robyn Says:

    (*I sure do hope I haven’t made any mistakes in my comment. Will revisit and redo a bit later.)
    ; )

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